By Dr. Laura Kearney
Have you ever wondered what humans did before the advent of toothpaste or flossing?
How did our ancestors keep enough teeth to eat when many of us have several cavities as children? Why do humans have to brush their teeth at all?
It may surprise you to know that we’re not the only species on Earth that require dental care to maintain good oral health.
Why do we have to brush our teeth?
Modern lifestyles are far different than those of even our grandparents. Just 200 years ago we lived much differently than today, let alone a thousand years ago.
Some of these differences make regular dental check ups and cleanings more important today than ever — although your ancestors would have likely appreciated them as well!
Our diets today include far more sugar and acids than our grandparents had. Bacteria in our mouths thrive off of sugar, and can break it down into acids that harm your enamel. Additionally, we tend to eat fewer dense, fibrous foods that can provide some mild scraping on and around the teeth. (This is the idea behind dental cleaning sticks for dogs)
Extra sugar in our diets comes from the ready availability of sweets, sodas, and added sugars in a wide variety of processed food products. Excessive consumption of soda and fruit juices (something unique to humans only in recent decades) can wear away the enamel that protects your teeth from decay.
Thanks to the benefits of modern health care (including regular dental cleanings and checkups), our average lifespan has increased tremendously over the past hundred years.
When it was rare for us to live past 45 years old, we didn’t need our teeth to last any longer than that. We avoided some of the long-term damage we do to our teeth by simply not living long enough to experience it.
Why don’t animals have to brush their teeth?
It is a common misconception to think that animals don’t need dental care to keep good oral health.
Animals do have a few ways to maintain their teeth. Chimpanzees are known to pick and clean their teeth with sharpened sticks, similar to how you use a toothpick. Gorillas pick food from their teeth like we do.
As well, like our previously mentioned ancestors, wild animals have less access to sugary and acidic foods. Vegetarian and omnivore’s diets are comprised heavily of dense, fibrous foods that scrape their teeth. Carnivores such as wolves get a similar effect from bones.
It is also untrue that wild animals do not suffer from tooth decay or gum disease. If you have a dog, you know the importance of brushing their teeth regularly to avoid gingivitis and bad breath. There are even veterinarians who specialize in oral health for exotic animals.
Oral health problems are common among apes and chimpanzees. Simply because wild animals do not have access to dental care doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit greatly from it. Just like our ancestors, a wild animal’s short life spans often means they die before major oral problems arise.
Most mammals do benefit from oral care, even if they don’t receive it. Just like most parts of our body, if we don’t maintain the health of our gums and teeth, they’ll eventually break down. This is true for species ranging from humans to gorillas to your household dog.
Thanks to huge advances in modern health care, we are living longer than ever. This means we need to keep our teeth and gums in top shape for much longer, making regular dentist visits even more important today!